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Louise Bethune: America’s First Woman Architect

On the 100th anniversary of her death, architects will gather in Buffalo to celebrate the life of a trendsetting pioneer.

By Kelly Hayes McAlonie, AIA

Editor’s note: On Dec. 18, members of AIA Buffalo and Western New York, AIA New York State, and AIA National leadership will gather in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, N.Y., to place a new grave marker at the final resting place of Louise Bethune, FAIA. One hundred years after her death, on Dec. 18, 1913, Louise Bethune, the first female architect in the U.S. and first woman member of the AIA, is still an inspiration to all architects eager to see their profession extend its borders to encompass the entire society it serves. The new grave marker will contain her name and dates of birth and death, as the previous marker only listed the birth and death dates of her husband, architect Robert Bethune.

After the ceremony, attendees will gather for a presentation on Bethune’s life and career, led by Bethune biographer and former AIA New York State President Kelly Hayes McAlonie, AIA, and to view an exhibition of Bethune’s work, “Buffalo’s Bethune: America’s First Woman Architect.” The exhibit is hosted at her own Lafayette Hotel, and curated by Hayes McAlonie and her husband, Brian McAlonie. The following lecture, by Hayes McAlonie, outlines Bethune’s personal and professional history, and describes the struggles faced by female architects at the end of the 19th century.

At the turn of the last century, Buffalo was a thriving American city. It was a place alive with commerce where civic-minded community leaders valued the built environment and sought to put Buffalo on the map for its fine design and buildings. The very best architects in the country built projects here, and many local architects thrived with interesting and abundant commissions. Western New York was also a hotbed for leaders of the women’s suffrage movement. Nearby Seneca Falls, N.Y., is recognized as the movement’s birthplace, and many conferences were held here to support and advance the cause. Therefore, it is no surprise that Buffalo should be the home of the first woman architect in the United States.

Louise Blanchard was born in Waterloo, N.Y., in 1856 to a family of educators, and moved with her family to Buffalo at the age of 12. At around this time, a family friend made a disparaging comment that she should pursue a career in architecture. Intended as an insult, Bethune took the comment to heart and upon her graduation from Buffalo High School in 1874 began preparing to pursue the recently opened architectural course at Cornell University. However, at the age of 20, she was offered a job as a draftsman in the office of Richard A. Waite and F.W. Caulkins, a prominent Buffalo architectural and building firm. Since most architects in those days were trained in drafting offices rather than architecture schools, she accepted the offer.

In 1881, at the age of 25, Louise Blanchard announced the formation of her own architectural firm at the Ninth Congress of the Association for the Advancement of Women, which was held in Buffalo that year. The Congress was convened to examine and promote the acceptance of women in scientific, artistic, and professional fields. Shortly afterward, she married fellow architect Robert Bethune and the firm of Bethune and Bethune was born. The firm won many prestigious and varied commissions such as:

  • The Women’s Prison at Erie County Penitentiary, Pennsylvania Avenue at Fifth Street
  • Iroquois Door Plant Company, 659 Exchange Street
  • Buffalo Baseball Association grandstand and additions, East Ferry and Michigan streets
  • 74th Regiment Armory, later Elmwood Music Hall, Virginia Street
  • Buffalo Public School #23, 891 East Delevan Avenue
  • Jehle’s Grocery Store, more recently the home of Just Pasta Restaurant, at Ashland Avenue and Bryant Street

While she accepted projects of all building types (even residential work, which she disliked immensely), her true love lay in educational buildings. The city of Buffalo was going through a building boom of grade schools at the time, and Bethune and Bethune is credited with designing 18 of them.

Today Louise Bethune is recognized for three things: two things she did and one she chose not to do. Locally, she is recognized for the design of the Lafayette Hotel, which opened in 1904. Located in downtown Buffalo, the seven-story, 225-room hotel with hot and cold water in all bathrooms and telephones in every room, was praised as “the best that science, art, and experience can offer for the traveling public.” Today it stands as a monument to the growth and prosperity of Buffalo at the turn of the last century.

Nationally, she is recognized as the first woman to be acknowledged by the professional organizations of architecture. In 1885, Louise Bethune applied for membership to the Western Association of Architects (WAA). Daniel Burnham, chairman, and Louis Sullivan, secretary, were staunch and outspoken supporters of her application. The Board of Directors’ enthusiastic approval of her application, which was based on her professional reputation, set the precedent for admitting women as members of the association. The membership stated:

“If the lady is practicing architecture and is in good standing, there is no reason why she should not be one of us. She has done work by herself and been very successful. She is unanimously elected a member.”

The following year, Bethune helped to organize the Buffalo Society of Architects. In 1888, Bethune was the first woman elected to the American Institute of Architects and the following year was named a Fellow of the organization, the first woman to hold that title.

Finally, she is renowned in architectural circles for refusing to compete for the design of the Woman’s Building for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Male architects appointed to design major buildings were paid $10,000 for design services. The cost for construction drawings were to be paid by the exposition. Women architects, on the other hand, were asked to compete for the design commission as well as to provide construction documents. For their contribution, women would receive a fee of $1,000. Bethune stated:

“The idea of a separate Woman’s Board expresses a sense of inferiority that business women are far from feeling. It is unfortunate that it should be revived in its most objectionable form on this occasion by women and for women.”

She was especially concerned that the competition would diminish the role of women in architecture. Her fears may very well have been justified. Fourteen women entered the competition and 22-year old Sophia Hayden of Boston won. Hayden was the first woman to graduate from the MIT architectural program, but she was not a seasoned architect. She completed the construction documents and traveled to supervise the construction of the building in Chicago, where she was continuously opposed by the head of the project’s Board of Lady Managers, Bertha Palmer.

After being beaten down at every turn, Hayden suffered a nervous breakdown, and another architect was retained to complete the building’s interior. It is a gross exaggeration to link the Columbian Exposition incident with the low number of women who have entered the field of architecture since that time, but it can be argued that the incident greatly affected the perception of women in architecture in the late 1800s. Many factors affect the number of women who pursue and maintain a career in architecture, but even today, while 50 percent of graduates of architecture school are women, only 12 percent of registered architects are female.

Despite this setback, Bethune remained dedicated to her career and to the promotion of women in business, especially architecture. She spoke widely on the topic, and throughout her professional life her actions and writings supported her belief. In an address to the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union in 1891, she noted:

“Women have entered the architectural profession at a much earlier state of its existence even before it has received legislative recognition. They meet no serious opposition from the profession nor the public. The future of woman in the architectural profession is what she sees fit to make it.”

Bethune’s contribution is still felt and her legacy continues. In 1971, the University at Buffalo named the first home of its School of Architecture Bethune Hall, prior to moving to Hayes Hall on the South Campus. A plaque bearing her likeness was erected at her gravesite at Forest Lawn Cemetery in 2002, accompanied by a Governor’s Proclamation. She was inducted to the Western New York Women’s Hall of Fame in March 2006.

Most importantly, her masterpiece, the Hotel Lafayette, was recently restored, one more example that Buffalo is re-emerging from its decades-long post-industrial slumber as a city with a bright future and enormous pride in its brilliant past. Bethune helped create that city and the architectural profession as we know it.

   
   


Rendering of Louise Bethune for the exhibit Buffalo’s Bethune: America’s First Woman Architect. Image courtesy of Michael Galen, Inkwell Studios.

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An illustrated rendering of Bethune’s Hotel Lafayette in Buffalo, N.Y. Image courtesy of Kelly Hayes McAlonie.

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Bethune’s Elmwood Music Hall in Buffalo, N.Y Image courtesy of Kelly Hayes McAlonie, AIA.

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